Ah, the early eighties! Hostages, Reagan, recession! These were not the most hopeful years of my own life (newly minted MFA + a stagnant job market = hours of dreary waitressing) and I never dreamed I’d revisit them. But writing Off Course I spent another three years there. Remember Coal Miner’s Daughter? Claus von Bülow? Cyanide-laced Tylenol? The Laffer Curve? Paul Volcker’s 20% interest rates?
But the soundtrack was memorable.
The heroine of Off Course, twenty-eight year old Cressida Hartley, is a PhD candidate in economics who finished her coursework in the Midwest then moved to a pretty Pasadena courtyard inhabited by old high school friends. I imagine them driving en masse and on dates into Hollywood to see the Cramps, the Specials, the Blasters, a local rockabilly group from Downey, or the quintessential LA punk band, X, at the Roxy, the Whisky, or Madame Wong’s in Chinatown. I imagine that Cress and her friends listen to Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, the B-52’s, Little Feat, or Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. (“Now everyone in the bank line knows/ I’ve got a crush on the new teller/ It’s plain as day/ I might as well tell her…”)
Enough fun! Cress has a dissertation to write. To find the time and solitude, she decamps to her family’s mountain cabin where, instead of buckling down to work, she reads old New Yorkers, listens on automatic repeat to the stray LPs collected there—Glenn Gould playing Bach, and her sister’s collection of cello masterworks. And then Cress makes a whole new batch of friends among the locals.
At this fraught juncture in her life, Cress is malleable, vulnerable and apt to lose track of herself and her own preferences—in music and in love. Her tastes shift with her environment and affections.
When Cress starts seeing lodge owner Jakey Yates, he brings her albums by the classic country stylists Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, who enter the Bach/Dvorak/Schumann rotation. Down at Jakey’s lodge Cress hears and soon befriends the local singer, Donna, aka the Sawyer Songbird, who ranges from the traditional (“Careless Love”) and bluegrass (“The Wabash Cannonball”) to covers of more singers like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Linda Ronstadt. Driving up and down the mountains, the clearest signal on the car radio comes from the country station in Bakersfield, providing its everlasting litany of drinking, cheating, and heartache.
Here is an Off Course sampler (and you can listen to the entire playlist here):
The Cramps, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”
The Specials, “A Message to You Rudy”
The Blasters, “I’m Shakin’”
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, “The New Teller”
Little Feat (with Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris), “Dixie Chicken”
Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations
George Jones, “Bartender’s Blues”
Emmylou Harris, “[Lost His Love] On Our Last Date”
Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Lefty Frizzell, “I Never Go Around Mirrors”
MICHELLE HUNEVEN is the author of three previous novels—Blame, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Jamesland; and Round Rock. She lives in Altadena, California, with her husband, Jim Potter.